Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Trans Siberian Adventure: End of the Line, Everybody Off!

We arrived in Krasnoyarsk at 6:48 AM on Friday, June 16, after 24 hours on the train. The morning was death with bird songs. How I dragged myself out of bed and managed to brush my teeth at 5 AM I’ll never know – probably just on automatic pilot after years of experience. Anyway, we all made it somehow, with packed bags and stripped beds. Fortunately, our bus was nearby and I settled into my seat wishing for another hour or so of travel so I could resume my dreams of Greek carriage attendants and Wesson Oil.
The gods must have heard my entreaties, as I had a nice nap on the way to our first destination, a sort of national park area where we could view the lushness of the Yenisei River area from atop one of its viewing sites. We’d gotten off the train so early I hadn’t had time to finish my ablutions, so had to use the facilities at the park, which consisted of, oh joy, a squatting toilet. I’d managed to avoid these lovely modern conveniences so far, but I guess my time had come. I won’t scare you with tales of the facility’s use, but suffice it to say it ain’t too easy on 73-year-old knees.
We then toured the Lenin Museum and the War Memorial (for the Great Patriotic War, which is what Russians call World War II). We climbed a short incline to a chapel on top of a hill overlooking the city and were then given one hour for lunch in the middle of the city, on our own. We found a wonderful Thai restaurant two minutes’ walk from the bus and had a great lunch. We all wished we’d had more time to enjoy and appreciate the food and service, but one must make do with what one has. I managed to scarf down the spring rolls along with duck and veggies in the allotted time.

Back to the train and another hot, hot, hot carriage. We all relaxed until dinnertime, reading and napping and finding our way to the bar car for our evening repast. I chose the Old Moscow Salad this time, as I needed something light. My accompaniment was a lovely semi-fruity Spanish white wine. I thought it was inadequately chilled, but declined to comment to our bar car attendant, Irina. When one is riding the rails across Siberia in the comfort of a nicely-appointed bar car, it is the height of tackiness to complain that one’s wine is not adequately chilled. Or so I reasoned. A refreshing caramel ice cream for dessert mellowed me out just right.

We repaired to our cozy den of iniquity and found it full of vodka drinkers eager and ready to replicate the previous night’s festivities. We didn’t get as far this night, but I had no trouble falling asleep later in the evening.
Saturday morning, June 17, I was up and about at 8 o’clock, refreshing and handi-wiping and dousing myself with washroom water (NOT fit to drink!). It had now been two nights without a shower and even my handi-wipes seemed inadequate to cover all that ripeness. I could hardly wait for tonight’s shower. But first, we had to tour Irkutsk and then bus down to Lake Baikal.

I had learned that breakfast was available on the train from 9 AM, and was determined to get to the bar car in time for a reasonable early-morning repast. Which I did. Tony joined me and we ordered the menu item shown as “scrambled eggs.” It turned out the eggs were actually fried, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less if they were pounded into dust; I just wanted a normal breakfast. It was great: 2 eggs each, tomatoes, onions, bread (no toast) and Sprite (no juice). Aaaahhh!

About 15 minutes later Dean wandered in and ordered the same thing and the attendant told him they were out of eggs. No one else had come in since our arrival, but they were out of eggs. Strange. But Attendant Olga wanted to be helpful and to please her customers, so she recommended another menu item which was in stock: macaroni and cheese. And that’s what Dean had. For breakfast.

We exited the Trans-Siberian Express for the final time in Irkutsk at 11:31 AM on Saturday, June 17. Our train trip, but not our journey, was over. We’d come more than 5200 kilometers (around 3600 miles) from Moscow on the rails. What an adventure! There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as we thanked our Provodnitsa and our bar car attendants; I even gave each of them one of the Budapest souvenir shot glasses I’d brought along for just that purpose. I doubt I’ll ever do anything like that trip again and I was still savoring every moment as I lugged my suitcase to the bus for our city tour of Irkutsk.
The far-eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk only became important after 1760, when it connected to the road leading from Moscow to Siberia. From then on it was an important point of transfer for imported Chinese products.

We exited the bus in the center of the city, near another of the ubiquitous churches, then walked down by the riverbank to Irkutsk’s old Main Gate. After brief visits to the House of Decembrists, the Polish church (natch!) and the Kirov Room, we were dropped off at an amazing entertainment venue in the city proper, sort of an outdoor shopping mall, with restaurants, souvenir chops, pubs, etc. Once again, we only had about one hour to eat lunch and shop, not nearly enough time to do it all.
Anyway, Dean, Tony and I found a nice terrace restaurant called AHTPEKOT in Russian (Antrekot in English, Entrecote in French) and I had some grenkiye and a lamb kebab with potatoes, accompanied by a nice rum punch. I had to eat and run to the shops to see what I could find, after which we reconnected with the bus for the 60 kilometer drive to Lisztvjanka, at the conjunction of the Irkut River and Lake Baikal.

Along the way we stopped at an old reconstructed wooden village called The Watchtower, where we were allotted 90 minutes to wander around. 90 minutes! 90 minutes to check out some old log cabin buildings and a couple of yurts. 90 minutes we could have spent lazily and productively shopping for souvenirs and gifts in Irkutsk. The travel agency would hear about this.

Finally, after an interminable 90 minutes, it was off to our final destination, the hotel Majak and its wonderful, magnificent showers. After two showerless days, we needed them. Lisztvjanká is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but all we really wanted at the time was a shower. Our travel itinerary indicated our accommodations were to be “self-contained double-bed chalets.” What we got was a regular hotel room on the fifth floor of a large pink and yellow structure that dominated the small town’s lakefront. Strange.
Lake Baikal, Siberia, is the world's deepest freshwater lake and holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. The lake and surrounding mountainous area is a unique ecosystem and in 1996 was proclaimed a World Heritage site. The water, of excellent quality and with a high oxygen content and a low mineral content, is transparent or clear to approximately 40 meters. The Earth's only freshwater seal species, the Nerpa, or Baikal seal, is found here

Anyway, I finally got my shower, standing under the cleansing and cooling spray until the hot water ran out. Aaaahhh! Clean again. Refreshed, the three of us walked down the lakefront street looking for an interesting restaurant for dinner. Nope, nothing there. We returned to the hotel and found a corner table in the main dining room. Where there was a wedding reception in progress, complete with loudspeaker music, live singer, cheering guests, dancers and inveterate smokers, whose only terrace access was behind our table. The non-stop lines of smokers coming and going and opening the door next to our table to let in all that cold night air was a refreshing change from the warm, cozy bar car on our train. (You do recognize sarcasm when you read it, right?)

I opted for the seafood pasta and a beer or three. Our waiter didn’t speak English, and the menu was only in Russian, but lo and behold, the wonders of modern technology triumphed again. The waiter had a phone with an app that actually translated scanned text from several languages, so we were each able to order what was on the menu after it was translated into English. Will wonders never cease.

We left the wedding revelers to their revels and ascended to the 7th floor terrace bar for a nightcap. It was a touch windy on the terrace, so we went inside where we were able to somehow order some cheese stix and a plates of blinies. The bartender understood Jamesons readily enough. It was a good evening and we retired fairly early.

The next morning we faced our final full day in Siberia. We started out at 9 AM and finished our scheduled activities by around 1:30 PM, after which we were free until our final group dinner that night.

We set off from the hotel in two mini-buses, the easier to navigate the narrow roads in the area. First stop was the Lake Baikal Museum, which taught us, once again, more than we wanted or needed to know about the area. But we did get to see a couple of the famous Nerpa, the Lake Baikal seals that inhabit the area, the only freshwater seals in the world. The two we saw looked so happy as they swam back and forth in their cramped tank in the museum. (More sarcasm, guys).

Onward and upward – literally. Next stop was a chairlift at a nearby winter ski area, which we took to the top of the hill/mountain. That may be the first time I’ve ever been on a chair lift without skis on my feet. Got to the top, all of 1100 meters above sea level. (Just for comparison, my house in New Mexico was 2400 meters above sea level). The views of the lake were spectacular, and we were honored to share them with a horde of Japanese tourists who climbed all over every scenic rock to have their pictures taken. (The sarcasm continues). Then, of course, we had to get down the mountain. No one told me I’d have to walk all that way down a mountain, probably 2-3 kilometers. At least it was downhill; I’d never have even started the uphill climb.

Finally, our last formal activity of the day was a fast boat ride on Lake Baikal. Cool. We clambered into two lake boats and off we went. A brief stop at Shaman Rock to check out the clear water, actually have a drink of the lake and to drop a coin or two and make a wish on the mythical shaman who inhabited the area. Then it was over to a far bank for a brief hike up the hill from the shore. I opted to remain by the shore, as did several others. One of our party and our Russian guide even stripped down and dipped in the lake. I tested the water and decided it was way too cold for my tender bod. We returned to our berth at the hotel dock around 1:15 PM and were released for the rest of the day. Next scheduled event was our last night farewell party in the hotel’s restaurant at 8 PM that night.

I immediately took off down the lakefront promenade, searching for souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. And damn if I didn’t find almost everything I wanted. (Sorry, Tony and Morgan, no Harley Lisztvjanka shirts and no University of Lisztvjanka shirts. I did see an Irkutsk State University sweatshirt on a passing local, but she ran off quickly when I tried to buy it for you.). I had a nourishing lunch of lamb kebab grilled over open coals and a Kozel beer at a small terrace restaurant on the shore, watching the bathers on this quiet Sunday afternoon.

On my way back to the hotel, I decided to take in the show at the Nerpinarium, the blue-Quonset-hut shaped building along the way. It lasted about an hour and was a fun time for all attendees, including lots of kids. The seals did all their tricks and chowed down on all their fish tidbits for doing those tricks. Well, I enjoyed it!

An afternoon nap was in order, followed by another shower and visit to one of the hotel’s bars prior to our dinner. The last night party was a resounding success. The 20 or so group members who attended managed to put away four bottles of vodka along with numerous beers and wines. The noise level appreciated accordingly and, although our meals were staggered and served in surprising time frames, eventually everyone got their food. I had a beautifully-cooked steak with veggies, accompanied by something called cowberries. We never did figure out what they were, but they tasted good so what the heck. The steak was served with a meat cleaver instead of a steak knife, and, Boy, did I have fun with that!

And thus endeth our final full day in Siberia.

Up on Monday, June 19, around 6:30 for a final packing and breakfast before our 9:30 departure for the Irkutsk airport. I was so dehydrated from the previous night’s excesses that I drank down 2 bottles of water and 4 glasses of juice; I could feel my system absorbing it as fast as I could pour it down my gullet.
And away we went! Along the way we stopped to see an old Lake Baikal icebreaker ship called the Angara (name of one of the rivers that flows into the area), and then on to the airport. Cleared Security and checked in for our six-hour flight to Moscow, then a brief layover and another 2 ½ hour flight to Budapest, arriving at 7:30 that evening.

And my years of luck and good fortune with flights all over the world finally came to a crashing halt in, of all places, the Irkutsk, Siberia, airport. By the time I got to the check-in counter, all the aisle seats had been taken and I was relegated to a middle seat. For six hours. On an Aeroflot plane, known for their narrow, uncomfortable seats. I was sure my seatmates would be two overweight, sweaty, onion-reeking tourists – or maybe Russian gymnasts, as I’d had on a previous flight. I could hardly wait.

We boarded the plane and took off on time. I survived my middle-seat ordeal. Luckily, my seatmates were an older Russian professor and a young Russian iphone addict, and they were both content to read or sleep or otherwise not bother me or anyone else. Whew! We made it to Moscow without incident, where we said goodbye to Dean, who was staying over to visit a friend. A brief stint in The Irish Bar with several Caffreys and some lovely blintzes with red caviar, and I hiked down to our boarding gate and our flight home.

Naturally, the Hungarian Passport Control booths were overworked when we arrived, as at least two other flights had arrived at the same time, full of Asian tourists. Took me nearly an hour to clear Passport Control. I caught the airport bus and then metro to Kalvin Ter and dragged my suitcase to my building. I was home.

I unpacked quickly, slugged down a gallon of cold water, took a bracing shower and threw myself into bed. Didn’t even bother to set the alarm. I was off schedule for the first time in nearly two weeks. It was great.

And so it was over, a long-time dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express across Russia. An amazing adventure. I’ll need time to reflect on everything and consider the pluses (many) and minuses (very few) of the journey, but for now, here are the most obvious comments I can think of:

The Trip went so fast! I know we hurried and scurried from one sight to another, but we spent at least 60 hours on the train and you’d think that would slow time down. But no, time just seemed to fly by. Amazing.

All of our tours were thorough, but seemed rushed at the time. And we saw everything on our schedule.

Zita gave tours in Hungarian, but there were local Russian guides who spoke English at each stop, so we were able to get the main points of the commentaries. Zita also performed above and beyond the call, as she explained many things in English, too, but it was by no means a bi-lingual tour.

We covered around 5200 km (about 3600 m) on the train.

All of our hotels were new and modern and comfortable, with good restaurants and bars and GREAT showers!

We did not encounter a single danger that was noted in our guide book or was told to me by Russian friends. Not a single one! No problems whatsoever. Of course, Dean and I did wear money belts most of the time, but still, no compartment-attempted break-ins, no pickpockets, no hustlers, no offers of drugged drinks in bars, no dangers at all!

For whatever the reason, we only spent two nights (the first two) with an extra person in our compartment. The third night we had been moved to another carriage, so there were just the three of us from then on.

I never found out what Cowberries are.

And so, until my next great adventure – Samarkand? Sri Lanka? - that’s it from your favorite world traveler.

Hasta la Vista, Baby!


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